Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1324, (15 - 21 December 2016)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1324, (15 - 21 December 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt mourns

The terrorist attack at the St Peter and St Paul Church Sunday establishes clearly that Egypt needs stronger laws and a new government, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

December has always been a month of hope and renewal. Not only in Western countries but also in countries like Egypt where both Muslims and Christians celebrate Christmas together. It is not unusual to see Christmas trees on sale in posh districts like Maadi, Zamalek and Garden City. And lately, shopping malls have discovered that celebrating Christmas is a very good marketing strategy to attract thousands of customers throughout the month of December. In the last few years, Egyptians saw a good omen in the fact that celebrating both Christmas and the anniversary of the Prophet Mohamed coincide chronologically.

They have always prided themselves in living in a land that has respected religious diversity. Ever since the 1919 Revolution, Egyptians had expressed national pride in the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians. And this despite the fact that extremism and fundamentalism tried to break the unbreakable. Still, the Egyptian people go to great lengths to keep this spirit of nationalism and peaceful coexistence alive. They consider it a national heritage. And rightly so. When we look at the map of the Middle East these days, we see countries torn asunder on religious and sectarian grounds.

This spirit of national solidarity between Muslims and Christians in Egypt was best exemplified in the mid-1960s when the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser responded positively to a request by the former Coptic pope Kirollos VI to build the Coptic Cathedral in Abbassiya, a Cairo district. The late pope asked the government to foot part of the bill for the construction, and president Nasser gladly and quickly obliged. During construction, the pope asked for further financial assistance and Nasser readily provided the Egyptian Coptic Church with the financing needed to finish building the St Mark Cathedral. In July 1968, president Nasser, side by side with the former pope and the Ethiopian Emperor at the time, inaugurated the cathedral, which has remained ever since the embodiment of this national solidarity among Egyptians, regardless of religious affiliation. On its inauguration, president Nasser made a point of underlining the fact that he was the president of all Egyptians. The message was clear. Unfortunately, it became blurred after his death on 28 September 1970.

Egyptians were reminded on the morning of Sunday, 11 December 2016, of the sad state of the country when a bomb exploded in a church adjacent to the St Mark Cathedral. Until time of writing this article, there were 23 dead and 43 injured. Sunday was an official holiday in the country. Egyptians, be they Muslims or Christians, were celebrating the Prophet’s anniversary. They were exchanging greetings on this occasion. The explosion aimed at destroying the strong national bond among Egyptians.

Two days earlier, on Friday, 9 December, eight policemen lost their lives in a terrorist attack against a mobile police post near a mosque in Giza before noon prayers. This terrorist attack was claimed by a pro-Muslim Brotherhood group. The church attack has not been claimed by any group so far, although it is difficult to imagine a group claims responsibility for such a heinous attack. In Egypt, attacking a place of worship is considered near sacrilege. Social media witnessed an outburst of anger bordering on disbelief against the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptians linked the two attacks to the final validation by the highest court in Egypt of the death sentence for defendant Adel Habbara and six of his accomplices in a case known as the “second Rafah massacre” when they killed more than 20 Egyptian policemen in Sinai after their bus was stopped on a highway. The image of the policemen, with their hands tied behind their backs, killed on the road, has haunted Egyptians. They believe that the two terrorist attacks on 9 and 11 December are a reaction to this sentence, long awaited by the Egyptian people. Some went as far as demanding a public execution for the seven culprits in the Sinai case.

The second terrorist attack, 11 December, compounded the state of shock in the country. The government declared a three-day period of mourning where flags would fly at half-mast. It was a wise and necessary decision to alleviate the pain and anger, not only of Christians, but also of Muslims.

Egyptians are demanding answers from the government, which seems to be drowning under the weight of the economic and financial challenges facing the country. The terrorist attacks of December 2016 are meant to further paralyse the government and to send a message that the whole political system is not capable of providing security nor leading the country on the road of economic rehabilitation and sustained economic development. It goes without saying that the country is in the throes of an unprecedented crisis of governance. To make matters worse, Egypt seems to be without reliable foreign allies to sustain the government in its efforts to fight terrorism and the economic stagnation that has befallen Egypt in the last four years.

US Secretary of State John Kerry called his Egyptian counterpart after the attack at St Mark’s Cathedral to express his deep condolences to the families of the deceased. According to a press statement by the State Department spokesperson 11 December, the United States “condemns in the strongest possible terms the terrorist attack on Christian worshippers”. In addition, the United States “will continue to stand with the people of Egypt as they face threats from terrorist organisations and work to achieve a stable, secure and prosperous future”. However, actions speak louder than words. I am afraid we will have to wait for the new Republican administration to see how far the United States will be willing to stand by Egypt in these trying times, domestically and regionally.

A change of government has become a necessity. The imposition of emergency law has become all the more necessary. Frankly speaking, I do not know how Egypt can tackle the grave challenges facing the Egyptian people without taking these two steps.

The majority of Egyptians have lost confidence in the present government and the police and security apparatus, for one reason or another, have proven incapable of containing terrorism.

The overall situation in the country has become too sensitive not to think deeply of reordering national priorities and seeking new allies abroad who are seriously willing to stand by Egypt while it sails in rough seas. There is no other alternative for the political survival of Egypt. Things cannot remain the way they are.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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